More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 114

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

DVDs are another thing. At just 1US$ – 8RMB – a throw, they used to be on sale at every street corner, in bars, the markets and, even, off the back of bicycles. I used to go to an amazing DVD ‘supermarket’ not far from my flat in central Shanghai. The copies were usually perfect, in beautiful printed covers and wrapped in plastic. If they didn’t have the movie you wanted on show, they would give you a pile of loose leaf folders to browse through and you could order your favourite movies.

Of course, there were serious copyright issues involved and, during 2006, the US government started to put extreme pressure on the Chinese authorities to close the illicit copy trades down. My favourite supermarket was closed by the police, at a more senior level than the local coppers they were paying off. The result was that rip-off copies were now only available on the streets from rogues and vagabonds: the copies were terrible.

You can buy virtually anything off the back of a bicycle in Shanghai: from a bowl of plastic fruit to an eight-metre length of piping. At one bus stop a crippled vendor sells them from the back of his self-propelled invalid carriage. I resist purchasing one with the hard sell title, ‘Mozart will Make Your Baby Lovelier’ – Mandarin does not translate faithfully into English.

Above all, Shanghai is safe: apparently safe to wander anywhere and everywhere no matter the time of day or night. I never ever felt threatened going anywhere at any time. That’s a big plus in an unsafe world….

But I realised how far I was out of the loop on the morning of April 7. I’d gone downtown to one of the older neighbourhoods of Shanghai. I went into a building for just a few minutes to pay up my email account. By the time I came out, a considerable crowd of 40 or 50 people had gathered. That’s considerable anywhere in China where all gatherings not officially sanctioned are illegal. On top of an advertising bollard inviting a visit to The Shanghai Museum, was a solitary, protesting figure: a middle aged man, neatly dressed but clearly distressed. He carried two large, handwritten banners which dwarfed him. His message was clear – once I had the Chinese pictographs deciphered: the resolute march of Shanghai into the 21st century had deprived him of home, money and food. He must have been desperate. Within minutes of his climbing up and beginning his solitary protest, hordes of baton-wielding police were on the scene.

I found myself disturbed by it. Like all foreigners, I had, for the two months I had been in Shanghai, taken the convenient, and conventional, view that the city was a remarkable, successful and rather admirable exposition of the undiluted virtues of human determination and achievement. Now it came home that there was a human cost to all this and, furthermore, that, despite the economic bribes involved, ultimately human rights did not feature.

I got one photograph off before the police descended on me and I snatched a few hasty fuzzy images as I was hustled away and men – some in uniform, some not, hauled the hapless figure from his precarious perch.

In fact, he was protesting against a notorious crook well linked into the local political hierarchy. I offered my photographs to The Shanghai Daily but was told that the incident was ‘not news’. Why I asked? I did not get the answer I expected. “Oh, this sort of thing happens all the time.”

A few days later, I read in That’s Shanghai, normally involved in propagating the message of the new, vibrant economy, that more than 50 per cent of the old town of Shanghai had already been swept away in the drive for modernisation. And 2003 would sweep away another 25 per cent.

Taking photographs – which is what I spend most of my time doing as I cannot write around here – can be a tricky operation. I’ve noticed not far my apartment a place with a high wall around. There’s no sign, no indication of what, if anything goes on inside. There is, however, a sign on the street I find unusual and slightly amusing. It says ‘No Fireworks’ in Chinese and English.

As I am building a file of bizarre signs, I reckon this to be a suitable addition to ‘The Chamber of Ten Thousand Flowers’ (toilet) and ‘Shanghai Naughty Family Pets Co.’ (vets).

Again, one photograph taken and out of the corner of my eye I note two denizens of the Peoples’ Liberation Army striding purposefully towards me. I attempt to appear nonchalant and take off in the opposite direction. Their purposeful strides soon overhaul me and I am seized, one on each arm.

We are joined by characters in leather jerkins I suspect are plainclothes policemen and the frogmarch terminates at a police box on the corner. More characters appear. Men in police uniforms with batons; more plainclothes men jabbering into walkie talkies; and the simply curious intrigued to observe a laowai detained by the authorities. In short order, a large blue van arrives and I am deposited – politely, it has to be said – inside.

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